Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Fees conundrum

It seems to me that research students are the Cinderellas of the university system. In these days of increasingly transactional relationships between institutions and their students, the 'value' offered for my £ thousands paid out in each year is far easier to measure if you're a) full-time b) on campus and c) part of a taught degree course.

In my field, new full time undergrads and taught postgrads know they'll get, say 120 lectures a year; maybe 60 seminars and can take advantage of a fixed amount of staff office hours. They'll know they have to complete perhaps 10 assignments between October and May and then sit four or five exams. They'll also have access to the library and, more important today, to online library resources that universities pay thousands for each year.

Without doubt, the more the student puts in, the more they get out of their experience - and it's relatively easy to conduct a cost/benefit analysis.

But what about research students - and should universities be thinking about a different model for charging research student fees?

I'm exceedingly relieved that I started my PhD before the student fees hike. I'm self-funded and my fees come out of income while I work alongside my study.

What I get for those fees is access to a research office with a PC and a phone (UK calls only); library membership; invitations to attend/participate in departmental reseach seminars; an annual researcher presentation event and, most importantly, access to two supervisors who help guide my study. I also get a research allowance of £180 per year - though am very limited in what I can use this for.

As a mature student, living 30+ miles from campus, registered as part-time and working full time: I use the office rarely - I'm really only ever there on about 24 days when I'm teaching in the academic year - and I'm not actually doing much PhD stuff those days! Library membership is vital and valuable - though 95% of my use is online. Research seminars tend to happen on a weekday afternoon so it's rare I can attend and the research presentation event covers a wide scope from economics through political science to history so is interesting, but frustrating too. I don't pay a full fee, but nor do I pay half of what full timers shell out.

The key 'value' comes from the student/supervisor relationship - yet no matter how heavily or lightly I lean on my mentors, the price remains the same. However frequently or infrequently I use the campus facilities, the price remains the same - and however much or little I choose to engage with the department, the price I pay remains the same.

In these economically turbulent times, would it not make sense for institutions to be more flexible in their charging structures - not just for existing researchers, but to help attract those who will undoubtedly be put off from even applying in the future by stratospheric fees and the ever-increasing feel that institutions are being asked to do more with less?

If I was looking to attract student now, I'd have a menu of charges related to needs:
  • A core fee would buy you access to the library and, say four supervisory meeting per year;
  • An enhanced fee could secure office space.
  • Departmental student events would be based on, and built around, student demand and charged on a per-event basis. They would also happen at a time convenient for students, not just departmental staff.
  • Additional supervisorys could be purchased - £X per hour - book three get one free etc.
  • A premium fee would offer presentation and critique opportunities, and perhaps support to attend external events and be part of a wider network.
These are just top of the head thoughts, but it's time institutions became more commercial and more savvy in responding to student needs rather than continually being driven by a 'one size fits all' process. Some of us only need/want or can afford the 'institution-lite' approach to a PhD, while others will want full immersion and a helping hand all along the way. Assuming we set a base level of support that is sufficient to get someone through this research apprenticeship, do universities have to apply the same cost structure to everyone?

No private business would operate in the way our universities do today. The current fee/value model, and indeed wider funding model seems less sustainable year by year.

Is it time for institutions to dare to do something different?


Richard Parnham said...

Darned right.

I would put the financial “value” of my PhD university course fees as:
• 65% university library access – the vast majority of which is via online journals, accessed from home.
• 20% supervisor face time – low frequency, but high impact.
• 10% networking opportunities.
• 5% incidental savings – software discounts, cheap access to stuff.

Like you, several of the academics I come across simply don’t “get” the realities of being a self-funded part-time student. On individual (before he gave up) used to lament that I didn’t come to the regular Wednesday lunchtime seminars, even though the vast majorities of topics discussed had zero relevance to my studies. For him, learning was an end in itself. For me, most seminars represented an expensive trip into town, lost study time and lost income – so my non-attendance was a no-brainer.

Mark Shanahan said...

Hi Rich

Yep - the 'opportunity cost' impact on self-employed students simply doesn't compute with most academics.

I'd love to have the time to engage on intellectual constructs around aresearch table on a Wednesday afternoon, but tend to be too busy trying to earn the dosh to enable me to pay for my research apprenticeship.